“You’re Alone?”

“You’re Alone?” September 12, 2009

You know, I’ve been hearing for years that isolation is a fundamental quality of the human condition – the whole, “You’re born alone, you live alone, and you die alone” thing, and I’ve nodded my head sagely for years to that saying.

The thing is, I am realizing that I’m not sure what that means.

“Born alone?”

You come into this world out of your mother’s own body, with an umbilical cord attached, and covered with fluids that moments before were part of her; within seconds you are in her tender arms being held and cared for with the most primal love there is.

“Live alone?”

Not if you have even the barest shred of empathy, the most minimal social skills; ever notice that when something awful happens (9/11?), we instinctively drop all the crap we use to isolate ourselves from others (money, pride, class, etc), and we remember, if only for a few precious hours or days, that the only thing we have that matters is each other, and we are thus priceless? We are alone only to the extent that we willfully forget our fundamental interconnectedness.

When I was in the Army, there was a kid in my unit named Rivera. Rivera was from Puerto Rico, and was pretty much liked by everyone – he had a quick smile, and would take some of the newer guys under his wing and show them what was expected of them. He had a very pretty wife, and a new son named for him.

When we were out in the field one time, Rivera violated policy and picked up a dud round, a grenade, and it went off in his hands. It took him about 5 minutes to bleed out while a buddy screamed into radio for the medevac chopper to hurry. He died in the arms of a buddy of his who was a surfer from L.A. named Griffin.

After we got back from the field, we had a formation at the end of the month (on payday) where the First Sergeant would call the last names of everyone in the unit, in alphabetical order, and as our names were called each soldier would answer with his first name and middle initial and then fall out to a new formation.  He went through the names, and then called “Rivera!”

There was a terrible, echoing silence; he called again, “Rivera!”, and everyone there felt the silence resonate again; he called a final time, his voice breaking, “Rivera!” and by then everyone in that formation had tears in his eyes. His wife held her baby, and we could hear her crying softly.

In that moment, we ceased to be black or white, Privates or Sergeants or Majors or rich or poor or urbane or bumpkin; all of that faded into insignificance. We were brothers, just brothers, bound together in our grief. We missed our friend.

“Die alone?”

My father died (of cancer) in my arms, surrounded by his family, and as he left this world I said a silent prayer of thanks that I had him for 34 years, and for him to have a safe journey. All of us told him that we loved him.

Like I said, I’ve nodded my head sagely for years to that triplet: “You’re born alone, you live alone and you die alone.”

I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure I’ve ever known.

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